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U.S. Defense Secretary urges Israel to get back to the table

By Jen Rizzo, CNN National Security Producer
updated 12:42 AM EST, Sat December 3, 2011
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has urged Israel to get to the
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has urged Israel to get to the "damn table" in peace talks
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. Defense Secretary urges Israel to kick off peace talks
  • He says Israel is becoming increasingly isolated
  • Panetta says Israel needs to 'reach out and mend fences'

(CNN) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Israel to get to the "damn table" in peace talks with the Palestinians, an unusually blunt comment that inserts him into the Middle East peace process.

In remarks at a Brookings Institution conference, Panetta called on Israel to again start negotiations with the Palestinians. "Just get to the damn table. Just get to the table," Panetta said during the event in Washington. "The problem right now is we can't get them to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences."

Israel is becoming increasingly isolated from the region, according to Panetta.

It's not enough, he said, for Israel to rely on a strong military for security, diplomacy is also needed.

"Unfortunately, over the past year, we have seen Israel's isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow, and the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace has effectively been put on hold," Panetta said.

Panetta said Israel could "reach out and mend fences" with countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, countries he said share an interest in stability in the Middle East.

"If the gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are -- and Israel's moral standing will grow even higher. And that is why Israel should pursue them," Panetta said.

Panetta placed a special emphasis on Israel improving its relationship with Turkey, saying he has voiced this message in Jerusalem in the past and plans on voicing it again when he travels to Ankara, the Turkish capital, later this month.

He emphasized that Israel will "always have the unshakeable backing of the United States."

Next year, the U.S. military and the Israeli Defense Forces will be conducting the largest joint exercises between the two countries. Ballistic missile and rocket defense capabilities will be tested.

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